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Madame Grés | Couture at Work

The realms of art and fashion came into stunning collision in the latest exhibit, “Madame Grés: Couture at Work” held at the Bourdelle Museum in Paris. This retrospective matches the fluid, minimalist garments of dressmaker Madame Grés with their stone counterparts in the form of sculptures and busts by sculptor Emile-Antoine Bourdelle. Walking around the exhibit enables one to appraise the works of these two artists, while photos and drawings of Madame Grés at work provides intriguing insight into the woman who was as complex as the clothes she designed.

Madame Grés can be considered a sculptor in her own right. However, she utilizes pins instead of chisels, and fabric instead of stone. Her garments are evocative of the stoic and austere impact that sculptures create. “For me,” Madame Grés claims, “it’s the same thing to work on fabric or stone.” She attributes personalities and idiosyncrasies to each garment she creates. “I drape the fabric on a mannequin, then I thoroughly study its character. I’m trying to understand and judge their reactions. Then I take my scissors. The cut is the critical phase…For each collection I completely wear out three whole pairs of scissors. I create a line and shape as the fabric itself would have.”

Grés' garments combines elements of modernity with timeless designs

Gre’s garments range from taffeta gowns with exaggerated sleeves to simple Grecian dresses. While maintaining a muted color palette and barely any embellishments, she transforms simple jersey material into elaborate works of art by way of draping, twisting and braiding. Each piece seem to shimmer with movement and a longing to be worn. They are not made to hang on mannequins but to adorn human bodies, to the extent that Grés pins each garment directly onto live models. As such, it can only be regarded to best effect when reunited with the human form. While simple and modest at first glance, the infinitesimal folds and pleats (now known as Grés pleats) reduce the structural integrity of each piece and lends it a more alluring air of frailty. This creates a perfect balance of modesty and sensuality in order to complement the body.

The dresses are complemented by Antoine Bourdelle's sculptures

“I have nothing to say, and everything to show.” The enigmatic Madame Grés was fond of reinventing herself, which manifested by way of her monikers. Born Germaine Emilie Krebs, she was known as Alix Barton before settling on Grés, which is an anagram of the name of her then husband, Czech painter Serge Czerefkov. She was also a fiercely private woman, and did not release her first prêt-a-porter collection until 1980; practically forty years after the launch of her couture line House of Grés. The brand was short lived, however, and she declared bankruptcy eight years later and sold the fashion house to Japanese company Yagi Tsusho, ultimately dying in obscurity in 1993.

The retrospective, curated by Olivier Saillard, pays long overdue homage to Grés’ work by displaying them in a museum, as acknowledgement of her undeniable talent; as well as Germaine Grés the woman, who had to abandon her dreams of being a sculptor. By placing her garments alongside Antoine Bourdelle’s sculptures, he entreats viewers to regard the two artists in the same light, emphasizing how art surpasses considerations of medium or material.

– Jin Yang

Madame Grès: La Couture à L’Oeuvre (Madame Grès: Couture at Work) will be held at the Musée Bourdelle from March 25 to July 24, 2011.

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